Cardiac Autonomic Responses during Exercise and Post-exercise Recovery Using Heart Rate Variability and Systolic Time Intervals-A Review

Front Physiol. 2017 May 29;8:301. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2017.00301. eCollection 2017.


Cardiac parasympathetic activity may be non-invasively investigated using heart rate variability (HRV), although HRV is not widely accepted to reflect sympathetic activity. Instead, cardiac sympathetic activity may be investigated using systolic time intervals (STI), such as the pre-ejection period. Although these autonomic indices are typically measured during rest, the "reactivity hypothesis" suggests that investigating responses to a stressor (e.g., exercise) may be a valuable monitoring approach in clinical and high-performance settings. However, when interpreting these indices it is important to consider how the exercise dose itself (i.e., intensity, duration, and modality) may influence the response. Therefore, the purpose of this investigation was to review the literature regarding how the exercise dosage influences these autonomic indices during exercise and acute post-exercise recovery. There are substantial methodological variations throughout the literature regarding HRV responses to exercise, in terms of exercise protocols and HRV analysis techniques. Exercise intensity is the primary factor influencing HRV, with a greater intensity eliciting a lower HRV during exercise up to moderate-high intensity, with minimal change observed as intensity is increased further. Post-exercise, a greater preceding intensity is associated with a slower HRV recovery, although the dose-response remains unclear. A longer exercise duration has been reported to elicit a lower HRV only during low-moderate intensity and when accompanied by cardiovascular drift, while a small number of studies have reported conflicting results regarding whether a longer duration delays HRV recovery. "Modality" has been defined multiple ways, with limited evidence suggesting exercise of a greater muscle mass and/or energy expenditure may delay HRV recovery. STI responses during exercise and recovery have seldom been reported, although limited data suggests that intensity is a key determining factor. Concurrent monitoring of HRV and STI may be a valuable non-invasive approach to investigate autonomic stress reactivity; however, this integrative approach has not yet been applied with regards to exercise stressors.

Keywords: HRV; allostasis; challenge test; parasympathetic; pre-ejection period; reactivity; sympathetic; vagal.

Publication types

  • Review